Jets soar to head of NFL class; Montana makes 4-star return

Here we are 11 games into the National Football League season and there may not be a better team around in terms of balance than the New York Jets. After squeaking past Buffalo in their opener and then losing to New England, the Jets have reeled off nine victories in a row for a best-in-the-league 10-1 record. New York's power surge wasn't entirely unexpected. The Jets, 11-5 last season despite an offensive line that allowed 62 quarterback sacks, did the expected. They shifted Dan Radakovich, who had previously tutored the linebackers, to offensive line coach.

If the significance of that move escapes you, consider that it was Radakovich who molded two of Pittsburgh's crack Super Bowl lines in the '70s. The difference between Dan and most offensive line coaches is that he isn't merely satisfied with players who hold their blocks - he also wants linemen who can knock people down.

Meanwhile, the defense that played such a key role last year, is still out there doing a big job - as shown by the fact that the Jets didn't allow a touchdown on the ground until their 11th game.

The year 1986 may also be remembered as the season the New York front office was vindicated for something it did in 1983. How, the experts wondered, could the Jets have passed up Dan Marino for little-known quarterback Ken O'Brien of the University of California at Davis, reported to be somewhere near Disneyland?

Marino, who had thrown for 79 touchdowns during four collegiate seasons at Pittsburgh, had been tried under fire and was a big name who could sell tickets.

O'Brien was a wait-and-see prospect with a lot of scouts, who were skeptical about anyone who would skip the phys. ed. route to earn a degree in political science.

While everybody liked Ken's size (6 ft. 4 in. and 210 lbs.), the scouts also wondered how a kid from a small school would react to a 270-lb. tackle bearing down on him.

Of course Marino has more than lived up to his billing so far, twice passing for more than 4,000 yards in a season and leading his Miami Dolphins to the Super Bowl a couple of years ago. But O'Brien is beginning to put some pretty impressive numbers on the board, too.

Ken had a game three weeks ago against Atlanta, for example, that went right into the history books. All he did that day was complete a team-record 17 consecutive passes in a 28-14 Jets victory. That's just three short of the all-time mark set by Ken Anderson of the Cincinnati Bengals against Houston on Jan. 2, 1983.

Last season O'Brien had the lowest interception percentage of any NFL quarterback, and went to the league's all-star game, the Pro Bowl, for the first time.

``If you're open, Ken will find a way to get the ball to you where you can do something with it,'' says wide receiver Wesley Walker. ``And the reason he throws so few interceptions is because he never forces anything.'' Montana back in the saddle

While the name Joe Montana may sound like the second lead in an old Hopalong Cassidy horse opera, the guy who answers to it is as tough as a bait box full of rusty fishhooks. After undergoing back surgery two months ago, the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback wasn't supposed to play football again this season, or the next, or maybe even the one after that.

Yet Montana, making a strong case that pro football is often more mental than physical, threw three TD passes against St. Louis his first week back on the job. So much for those who say it takes weeks for a quarterback who has been on the shelf to get his timing back.

Joe also took a couple of hard hits from opposing linemen and still came up smiling.

This week Montana aired out his throwing arm again, though his eye-catching 33 completions in 60 attempts for 441 yards still weren't enough to keep Washington from coming away with a 14-6 victory.

While all NFL offenses require quarterbacks who can think as well as throw, coach Bill Walsh's complicated attack has turned Montana into a human memory bank.

While Joe was hospitalized, the mail he received from all over the country filled more than 10 baskets. He plans to answer it all, and has hired Jackie Walker, wife of the team's public relations director, to do the mailing. He's closing in on 1,000 replies, with perhaps 2,000 to go.

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